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Cultural trailblazer Bailey to be memorialized through UWRF office

Robert "Doc" Bailey III, second from left, chats with UW-River Falls students during the 1960s. The university's Office of International Education will be renamed in Bailey's honor. Submitted photo1 / 2
Robert "Doc" Bailey III, far right, was the UW-River Falls professor who founded a unique semester abroad program. The university's Office of International Education will be renamed in his honor. Submitted photo2 / 2

Dr. Robert Bailey III blazed a trail in the 1950s when he became the first black professor at UW-River Falls.

Even now, more than 25 years since his death, the former sociology professor will break new ground. He will become the first African American person to have his name grace an office at UWRF.

What houses the university's international study programs will in 2020 be renamed the Dr. Robert B. Bailey III Office of International Education.

"He was almost a force of nature," UWRF Head of Library Research Services Brad Gee said, describing Bailey's reputation in the university community.

River Falls lawyer Keith Rodli knew Bailey first as his professor and later in life as a friend. The renamed Office of International Education will be housed in a campus building named after Rodli's father, a former University of Wisconsin regent.

"I'm really glad something is being done" to honor Bailey, Rodli said. "It's overdue, as far as I'm concerned."

He and others remembered the professor — known around campus as "Doc" Bailey — as a man with grace, keen intellect and a sense of multiculturalism that was often ahead of his time.

Robert B. "Doc" Bailey III

UWRF alumnus David Olson said there was a sharp contrast to be drawn between his longtime friend's professional accomplishments and the state of civil rights in 1960s America.

"Doc mentioned to me once that he was chairman of the Department of Sociology and a tenured professor at (UWRF) before he could sit at a lunch counter or enter a restaurant or stay at a hotel in his home state of Virginia where his mother continued to live," he said. "Try to imagine this remarkable, cultured, international, brave man. This is real courage in a society where every other word is hero or miracle."

Olson recalled telling a former UWRF chancellor that Bailey was "an institution within an institution."

Bailey was a Fulbright Scholar studying for his Ph.D. in Utrecht, Holland, when he applied for a professor's job at what was then Wisconsin State University-River Falls. Olson said Bailey got the job sight unseen with plans to stay a year before moving on.

That turned into a 30-plus-year career in River Falls.

Rodli said it was hard to imagine that the man he knew who radiated dignity would have experienced racism in River Falls.

"There was something about him," he said. "His dignity was just so apparent."

It wasn't until years later that Bailey shared with Olson some struggles he faced.

"Only very late in life as he knew the end was near did he tell me of the three racist deans with whom he had to deal," Olson said. "You can only imagine the debates, the struggle to take white boys and girls from small rural towns and farms to Europe to do independent research in diverse countries in the early '60s. Many professors rarely, if ever even made a trip to St. Paul or Minneapolis."

An international legacy

Besides being a racial pioneer in River Falls, Bailey launched a first-of-its-kind program at the university: the Quarter Abroad experience. Now known as Semester Abroad—Europe, the program was the first of its kind in the nation to give college students a unique overseas experience, one that melded self-reliance, academics and exploration.

"This deep desire to get kids out to a wider world of culture and life was what drove him," said Olson, a longtime friend of Bailey's.

Though some aspects of the program have changed — the initial student groups crossed the Atlantic Ocean by ship, not airplane — the experience remains very much in the mold cast by Bailey.

His wouldn't be like other international academic programs: Rather than running it as an exchange program, where students attend an international university — as many programs offer — Bailey's study-abroad concept was geared toward an independent experience.

It amounts to an undergraduate independent research project in Europe, explained Ian Williams, a UWRF professor who is among staff leaders of the semester abroad program.

"That is pretty astonishing," he said. "It's an opportunity not many undergraduates have."

UWRF's semester-abroad program calls for students to spend spring semester lining up a project related to their majors with their faculty advisers. They develop a project to be worked on in Europe and then spend the following fall semester executing their plan. The remainder of the trip included another portion that Bailey saw as vital to the experience: Exploration of Europe.

"He had his own vision of Europe and he wanted to bring this" to River Falls students, Williams explained.

Olson noted how other universities like Harvard and UW-Madison have since launched similar independent travel programs after Bailey launched his at UWRF. Additional travel-study programs have flourished on campus since Quarter Abroad.

"This is Doc's great legacy to the more than 600 who traveled on his program with him, but hundreds more with other professors with whom he shared the program," Olson said. "Then, later so many others who started their own."

Williams, a UWRF geology professor who hails from England, said renaming the Office of International Education in honor of Bailey is "very meaningful."

"I'm foursquare behind that," he said. "He was a sturdy fellow."

The UWRF University Advancement office is raising funds as part of the renaming effort, which goes to a $130,000 special projects endowment fund for scholarships and educational opportunities to carry on Bailey's legacy.

UWRF Advancement Officer Kellie Burrows is heading up the fundraising effort, which she calls "a labor of love."

The Dr. Robert B. Bailey III Office of International Education is expected to open in early 2020 in the remodeled Rodli Hall.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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